Under the legal doctrine of civil forfeiture, police can seize property tangentially linked to a crime, even if the property owner herself is innocent. As Isaiah Thompson reports in the Philadelphia City Paper, this is precisely what happened to Sandra Leino and her family:
“Long before the forfeiture action against her house would be completed, and without a judge or jury ever seeing her face, Leino would be forced from her house and made homeless along with her three children. She would lose her most precious possessions, and ultimately be deprived of her family’s most valuable asset — all without Leino ever being accused of any crime.”
But while Sandra and her children were completely innocent of any wrongdoing, her husband, Sam, was accused and arrested for selling prescription pills. (Sandra asserts Sam was legally using those painkillers for his own personal use, after he was partially disabled from a truck accident.)
Just a few months after his arrest, the Philadelphia District Attorney filed a motion to seize the Leinos’ home in May 2010—a year and a half before Sam Leino even went to trial. Later that month, the Leinos were kicked out of their own home. They tried staying at a motel, but couldn’t afford it for more than one week. With no other options at the time, they were even forced to sleep in the backwoods.
Fortunately, a relative was able to take the Leinos for five months, albeit in tight quarters. Since then, Sandra has been able to rent a new place.
“But on her own now, and unable to pay rent on top of the mortgage on the house she was barred from entering, she began missing mortgage payments. When the DA did eventually withdraw its forfeiture case against the Leinos’ house, it was only because the bank had already foreclosed.”
As for Sam, in 2012, he went to trial and was “found guilty of one count of possession with intent to distribute, and sentenced to three to six years.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Isaiah Thompson elaborates:
“Four of the police officers who surveilled and arrested Sam Leino are among a group of six narcotics officers whose credibility has been effectively dismissed by the DA’s Office itself after allegations were made in open court that they were part of a drug-dealing ring within the Philadelphia Police Department…How many times the DA’s forfeiture unit has seized property based on the testimony of these officers is not presently clear.”
So far, the Philadelphia DA has dropped almost 300 cases due to this misconduct.
Unfortunately, Sandra Leino’s story is not an isolated incident. Between 300 and 600 real-estate forfeiture cases are brought per year by the Philadelphia District Attorney. Lax laws and scant protections have created hundreds of Sandra Leinos, just in Philadelphia.
According to the Institute for Justice’s nationwide study, Policing for Profit, Pennsylvania has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws. Law enforcement agencies can forfeit property based on a mere “preponderance of the evidence,” which is a much less stringent standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal convictions.
Plus, property owners have to prove their innocence, reversing both the burden of proof and centuries of jurisprudence. In other words, in civil forfeiture proceedings, property owners actually have fewer protections than accused criminals.
Not only that, under Pennsylvania state law, police can keep 100 percent of all proceeds seized from civil forfeiture. In fact, the Philadelphia DA has raked in more than $6 million a year in civil forfeiture proceeds.
Most of this policing for profit is from cash seizures. But “the average amount of cash seized by Philadelphia police was $550 — hardly the proceeds of a Pablo Escobar or a Walter White.” No wonder a Pennsylvania judge has lambasted civil forfeiture as “little more than state-sanctioned theft.”
— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice